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Paul Rishell Talks with Elwood

Paul Rishell has been making music since he was ten years old in Brooklyn, NY. Fifteen or twenty years later, he moved to Cambridge Mass where he got to play with folks like Son House, Johnny Shines, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Howlin’ Wolf. He released his first official album in 1990. Today, he and his long-time partner, Annie Raines are fixtures on the New England blues/folk/roots scene. In 2012, he put out a superb album called Talking Guitar. He dropped by The BluesMobile to chat with Elwood about it.

ELWOOD
I want to welcome Paul Rishell to the Bluesmobile.

RISHELL
Thank you, nice to be here.

ELWOOD
You’ve been playing the blues for how long now?

RISHELL
Well let’s see I’m 62 now and I started when I was about 13 listening to blues and trying to play it so yeah a long time, maybe like 50 years almost.

ELWOOD
Wow that’s incredible. Do you remember the first song that caught your fancy or the first album that caught your fancy?

RISHELL
You mean like blues album?

ELWOOD
Yeah. Something that said: “whoa, there’s something here that’s calling to me.”

RISHELL
Oh I remember it very well. I was living in Connecticut at the time. It was 1963 and a friend of mine brought over some records that he got. He had been going away to school and a friend of his gave him two albums which he brought home and played for me. One of them was Koerner, Ray and Glover’s first album on Elektra Records, I think it was called “Blues, Rags and Hollers.”

The other one was Son House’s 1941, 42 Library of Congress recordings that Alan Lomax did, the infamous Coca Cola Sessions. Son House recorded these, he took a day off from work and he went down to Klax’s General Store somewhere in Mississippi and I think it was called Lake Cormoran, Mississippi and he recorded these songs for the Library of Congress. He took a day off of work and recorded them on a front porch of this store and during one of the songs he’s playing a steam train goes by. It’s on the record. He keeps playing anyway. It’s the most unbelievable recording of him singing and playing in the prime of his life, much better than the original Paramount recording that he did in 1929 in Grafton, Wisconsin at Paramount Record Company.

These are amazing records and they were the Rosetta Stone for me. I had been listening to jazz and rock and roll from about the age of six or seven I suppose and when I was ten I started playing on the drums. There weren’t a lot of drummers around playing drums in the early 1960s, there was only surf music, which is the kind of music I was playing, but I longed to listen to great drummers. And so I started listening to jazz, jazz musicians, jazz drummers specifically. I was listening also to people like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, ya know and people like that and also I was listening to Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and people like that.

When I heard Son House I realized that both of these musical forces came from the country blues and that was an exciting discovery for me. I immediately began to study country blues. I lived outside of New York. I’d take the train into New York and scour the record stores for blues albums. They were not easy to find in those days.

ELWOOD
Of course, Son House was an African-American from Mississippi. But Koerner, Ray & Glover… they were white guys right?

RISHELL
They were white guys from Minneapolis, Minnesota that’s right.

ELWOOD
And at the time they represented the forefront of this love for blues… for African American music.

RISHELL
Yeah, yeah. Koerner wrote his own stuff. Dave Ray tended to cover things but he wrote a few things. My favorite of the three was Koerner by far. We became friends later on when I met him up here in Boston, but he was the original. He was the sorta “you can do it” guy for me.

Listening to Son House was revelatory and certainly a very spiritual sort of experience. But listening to John Koerner… he was so “good time” about it, so offhand about it, yet so virtuosic in his own way and he was inspirational to me also because he was a white guy doing it. He was actually singing and playing some really, really good country blues.

ELWOOD
They called him Spider John Koerner. Was he spider like?

RISHELL
Yeah he was spider like. It wasn’t until I met him that I really understood that. Yeah he was like … long legs a thin guy pretty tall, long arms long legs yeah a spidery kinda guy.

ELWOOD
Cool. Now did you ever have the opportunity to meet Son House?

RISHELL
I did. In 1972 I was playing in Boston with a fellow named Peter C. Johnson who was a very good singer-songwriter and he was making records and demos and we were doing little tours. And he was managed by Dick Waterman who was at that time managing Son House and Junior Wells and Buddy Guy and many other people.

So I was Peter’s guitar player and Peter didn’t do any blues material, it was more like singer-songwriter kind of stuff and it was all acoustic. So we were playing that stuff and at some point we were somewhere and Dick Waterman was there.

I was not aware of Dick as a person connected to the blues. All I had been doing was listening to the old records and trying to figure out how the heck they were doing this and making these sounds and that’s what I was interested in. I wasn’t interested in politics or anything like that. I was just wanted to hear the music.

So when I met Dick, he said something to me to the effect of, “you know I know a lot of these old blues guys.” And I just sort of didn’t pay much attention. One day he called me and said, “I want you to come over to my office in Summerville and bring your guitar, I got somebody I want you to play with.” And I thought maybe it might be Bonnie Raitt. He was managing her – she had just gotten out of college. So I figured it might be Bonnie, it might be Peter, it might be… I don’t know somebody else.

So I went over there with my guitar and I walked in. And in the living room, there was an old guy watching The Beverly Hillbillies. And it was Son House.

Dick had asked me to bring up my guitar and play with him. He was gonna play I think at the Ottawa Blues Festival. This is 1974 – Ann Arbor, Ottawa, something like that. I believe it was Canada somewhere, Toronto, maybe. And there was some talk of me going up there with him but that never came about. But we did sit together and play. And that was for me a really incredible experience on lots of different levels.

ELWOOD
Now when you talk about Son House… A lot of musicians when they’re playing with someone like Son House or John Lee Hooker or someone like that, it’s often hard to follow them isn’t it? Because they have their own internal rhythm…

RISHELL
Well yeah they do. But I can recall playing with John Lee Hooker and standing and sitting in back of him, he admonished me, because you have to watch his hands, you can’t listen – you have to watch. He said: “I don’t know when I’m gonna change myself.” So with John Lee Hooker there was a visual thing. It’s a feel thing more than anything else. You just listen to the vocal, the vocal tells you when you’re gonna change.

ELWOOD
Hmm… and what was it like to play with Son House?

RISHELL
It was frightening in some ways. It was inspiring, very inspiring. I remember right after that I dreamt a song that’s on the new album actually. A song called “Louise.” But playing with Son was like… it would be sort of like meeting Abraham Lincoln I think something like that.

ELWOOD
“Louise” is an incredible song and what a great story!

RISHELL
Thanks, yeah it uh it was a I just dreamt this bass line, I woke up and it was the day after I played with him I went to sleep and dreamt this bass line, woke up, learned the bass line, went back to sleep, woke up a few hours later and wrote the song in three minutes.